As straightforward as its title, “The Monster” strands a bickering mother and daughter on a little-trafficked rural road where they discover that they — and anyone else unfortunate enough to pass by — are prey to a ferocious beast of unknown origin. Like writer-director Bryan Bertino’s prior “The Strangers,” this is an admirably lean-and-mean execution of an elemental horror story. Though ultimately its narrowness of purpose proves a limitation as well as a strength, the strong performances and visceral action make for a satisfying genre exercise. A24 is opening the feature (which is already available on DirectTV) on 18 U.S. screens Nov. 11, simultaneous with its on-demand launch.
Bertino effectively creates a tense mood well before the actual scary stuff starts, since the principal characters are already living a more banal kind of domestic horror-show. Divorced Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is raising daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) alone, at least in theory. In practice, however, Lizzy is raising herself, forced into a maturity beyond her 10 or so years to compensate for mom’s substance-abuse problems — which may have improved somewhat from the extreme abuses glimpsed in bleak flashbacks, but remain considerable. At the start, Lizzy greets the morning by making herself breakfast, clearing away the living-room debris from Kathy’s previous-night bender, and repeatedly trying to wake her zonked-out mother. They’re inevitably late getting started on the long drive to dad’s, where Lizzy will be dropped off for a stay, and where she clearly would rather be living in the long-term.
It’s a testy road trip complicated by rainy weather and construction that forces them to take a detour onto a lonely side road. They suffer a blown tire, and while the car is spinning out of control, they hit a wolf that crossing the little-traveled lane. Shaken but basically unhurt, the two wait for the tow truck they’ve called to arrive. By the time it does (with Aaron Douglas as unlucky proprietor Jesse), Lizzy has noted some disquieting things in the area — like the inexplicable disappearance of that wolf’s corpse in a moment when the mother and daughter aren’t looking, not to mention a giant fang lying nearby on the ground.
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Suffice it to say that there is something much worse than an ordinary lupine lurking in these woods, imperiling not only our protagonists but whoever shows up to help them. It takes nearly an hour before the leads become fully cognizant that they’re under attack, but it’s time well spent building character dynamics and an atmosphere of dread. Once all hell breaks loose, the action is brutally unrelenting, its long prelude coaxing us toward acceptance of some climactic elements (like the little girl’s credulity-stretching resourcefulness under extreme pressure) that might otherwise have seemed silly.
There’s no explanation whatsoever for just what the “monster” is or where it came from. Is it supernatural? An alien? Some kind of prehistoric aberration? A fairly old-school, man-scaled reptilian beastie when finally confronted head-on, it’s certainly unpleasant enough. But as in “The Strangers,” this menace is most frightening when still a mystery. The fact that it remains a complete enigma to the end will probably strike some as a narrative cheat, and indeed there’s a certain lack of lingering resonance to a monster movie in which the monster is, well, just a monster, absent the slightest context, purpose, or backstory. But like Bertino’s sleeper-hit debut (in the interim, he made 2014’s “Mockingbird,” a more gimmicky horror picture that few saw or liked), this feature makes a rigorous virtue of its conceptual simplicity.
Given much more dimensionalized characters to work with than the genre norm, Kazan and Ballentine are very good, each willing to dig into how interpersonal strife has made this duo not just victims, but irritable, unforgiving, and often cruel toward one another. Naturally, their essential bond emerges in crisis, but that’s handled without too much sentimentality.
Shot in Canada (and largely at night), “The Monster” is sharply assembled in all departments, wringing the maximum suspense and variety out of what might have easily become a claustrophobically monotonous handful of outdoor and car-interior locations. In addition to Julie Kirkwood’s atmospheric widescreen lensing and Maria Gonzales’ muscular editing, the principal aesthetic contribution comes from the judiciously applied score from tomandandy (aka Tom Hadju and Andy Milburn).